Most Biologists Take A While To Get Darwin

I complain a lot about how social sciences like economics and political science march forward, oblivious to the fact that Darwin has superseded the Newtonian reasoning that they have inherited down through the generations. But the fact is, many biologists  have a hard time with it.

The study of cancer has long proceeded along Newtonian lines. Doctors look for a discrete chain of causation, a gene or a toxin, that makes a normal cell become cancer. Then that cell makes more cancer. Eventually, more cancer gets big enough that it goes on the move and finds a new home as it metastasizes. By then it's far too late. The cure for cancer lies in finding the gene or finding the toxin and stopping it. In the meantime, the treatment is to kill those cells. In both cases there's a chain of causation and you try to cut it.


Turns out, not every cancer gene causes cancer. Most of the time a toxin does nothing. The cause usually doesn't cause anything. The tissue, the body, the person is a habitat and cancer usually does not survive. Would you study pandas but ignore bamboo? Would you not notice what causes bamboo forests to thrive... vs what causes them to be destroyed? 

From the New Yorker, The Invasion Equation, by Siddhartha Mulherjee: